Growing up, I was a gymnast. The serious, train-six-times-a-week-and-never-do-anything-else kind.
By the time I was 10, I had represented NSW at national championships, and won. By the time I was 12, I had represented Australia.
By 15, I was preparing for my second World Championships. I had been training relentlessly, day in, day out. I visualised my routines every night as I fell asleep, ensuring I had the mental strength to withstand the impossible stunts I would be called on to perform the following day.
Weakness was the one thing we were all taught to avoid, and I took this lesson very seriously, downing raw eggs and doing weightlifting, crunches, handstand push-ups and toe-pointing exercises every day.
Nothing could deter me; I would push my body to its limits and then further. I felt invincible.
I had to be perfect, and make it seem effortless. I had to be strong and powerful and graceful and light, all at the same time. I had to smile.
To do all these things at once takes a kind of mind-body alignment that I have been dreaming of every since I stepped off the floor for the last time. My body and my mind, it seemed, belonged wholly to me.
Until they didn’t.
When I was 15 I was violently raped by a stranger on a night out with friends. I was too young to understand the complexity of this kind of violence but old enough to know I should be deeply ashamed of it — and so I told no-one. The physical trauma I experienced has wreaked havoc on my body and left me with two chronic illnesses that will stay with me for life.
My silence has cost me dearly.
But in recent months, as I’ve watched the unfolding of the #MeToo movement and the growing number of women speaking about their experiences of sexual harassment, the acquittal of Sydney man Luke Lazarus for sexual assault, and the tragic rape and murder of Melbourne’s Eurydice Dixon, I’ve realised my inability to speak about the way male violence has affected me only contributes to the stigma that enforced my silence.
So I have decided, after a decade of keeping quiet, to tell my story in the hope that it will create space for others to do the same, and that we might finally stop shaming and blaming women for the sexual crimes perpetrated against them.
Fight, flight or freeze
It was 2007. I was out in the city on a Saturday night with three friends, at a dingy karaoke bar that smelled of damp and cigarette smoke and, crucially, sold over-priced vodka cruisers to underage girls.
We didn’t drink very much — we were too absorbed in the frivolity of singing nasty songs about boys we liked who were playing hard-to-get.
I sang a truly awful rendition of Justin Timberlake’s Cry Me a River, inserting the name of the boy I was chasing into the end of every chorus. My friends joined in.
It felt so good, as girls, to find a space where we could scream about the boys who had wronged us with no-one watching.
We left the bar not long after the Justin Timberlake song, at about 9pm, because we’d run out of money. Once out in the glow of Pitt Street, a group of four men approached and started talking to us, purposefully, I realised later, distracting my three friends as a fifth, out of nowhere, appeared behind me and slipped his hand into mine.
Come with me, he whispered.
No-one noticed us leave. He was gripping my hand so tightly I thought he might break my fingers. He marched me into the nearby McDonalds and up several flights of stairs to a dusty, disused bathroom. It was empty, and deathly quiet. I tried to fight him off and catch the eyes of other people in the restaurant but to no avail.
He took me into a stall, locked the door and violently assaulted me. I had never had sex consensually so I had no reference point for what was happening to me apart from what I’d seen in movies, but it was the most severe pain I had ever experienced.
The human body’s autonomic nervous system gives it three options in traumatic situations: fight, flight, or freeze.
I lunged at the latch of the stall door but he shifted his weight in front of it and didn’t move from that position. Flight was apparently not an option.
This man, I estimated, was about 35, and made almost entirely of muscle. I, on the other hand, was little over 40 kilos and as thin and spindly as a girl can possibly be while still being able to excel as an athlete.
I tried to push myself away from him and reach for the door, but he pulled out a Swiss army knife and held it against my throat. Fight, it seemed, was also out of the question.
When fight and flight fail and danger is still present, the autonomic nervous system sends a signal to the brain that death is imminent and the body begins to prepare itself, releasing a powerful natural analgesic and essentially cutting off signals from all major nerve endings (this is why people who have experienced severe physical trauma often recall not feeling any pain at the very worst moments).
This part of the process is called “freeze”.
At the same time the body numbs, the brain sends itself into a state of total dissociation, again to protect us from experiencing the pain and horror of the moments right before we die.
This process makes us feel calm, allowing us to survey the situation one final time for possible escape routes.
In this state, I noticed a glass bottle leaning against the door. Instinctively I bent over, grabbed it, and smashed it over the porcelain toilet bowl. This startled my attacker for only a few seconds, but it was enough.
I reached for the door, unlocked it, and ran as fast as my tiny, teenaged legs could carry me. I ran down the first flight of stairs, then the second, then the third.
Out on the street, I found my friends looking desperate, wondering where I could have gone. Together, the four of us ran around the corner and I collapsed into a nook next to what was then a Hungry Jacks.
All I remember now is the sound of my gasping breath, the strength of my hands as I clutched my stomach, and the only words I could muster: It hurts.
I went to school on the Monday and shared stories about the cheesy pop songs we sang about the crushes we couldn’t let go of. I told no-one of the assault.
About 18 months later I was struck down suddenly by unbearable abdominal pain. I threw up from the sheer force of it. I started to bleed everywhere. I passed out.
Over the next few years my body started to break down, physically, in a way that I assumed to be entirely unconnected to the event I had tried so hard to forget.
I started experiencing a litany of organic failures that grew, developed and shape-shifted: first my bladder, then my appendix, then my uterus, then my bowel.
Finally, after a frustrating process of trying to convince doctors that my pain was real, I was diagnosed with endometriosis. My surgeon was the first doctor who believed me, and it is no exaggeration to say his understanding of the disease has changed my life.
Some years later I was also diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. My body, it seemed, was in full-scale revolt.
– Lucia Osborne-Crowley
Read more: Speaking Out About Sexual Assault
Image source – Flickr.com